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Brooklyn mom Natalie Barratt had a bad feeling when her four-year-old son Luke Serrano emerged from his February testing session for admittance to the city schools' gifted and talented programs. "The teacher who had administered the test wasn't clear if he'd finished the test," she recalls. After weeks of phone calls with the Department of Education, she had Luke retested. His score this time: an 89, one point too low for acceptance into a G&T kindergarten class. For want of a single correct answer, Luke was officially non-gifted.
In past years, this would have been just one setback in the tangled swirl of bureaucracy and arm-twisting that is commonplace in navigating the city's Department of Education. This year, however, is different. Last fall, the city announced that in place of the patchwork that had been G&T admissions—where some districts offered gifted classrooms at all their schools and others at none, and each school decided on which kids to accept by its own selection process—beginning in 2008 there would be only one way into city-approved G&T classes: by scoring high enough on standardized tests. The goal, says Department of Education spokesperson Andy Jacob, was to "set a single, rigorous standard" that would level the playing field among all parents—and stop the perception of G&T as a haven for wealthier, whiter kids.
But as schools prepare to welcome the first classes of the new G&T regime this fall, it hasn't quite worked out that way. Some parents are angry at what they see as inequities in the tests themselves; others, that contrary to Department of Education promises, not every kindergartner with a high enough test score has been guaranteed a gifted classroom. (As in past years, most of the Bronx and Queens G&T classes will begin in first grade, not kindergarten.) Meanwhile, The New York Times revealed that fewer children from poor districts were getting into gifted programs than under the old, un-level playing field.
The new G&T system relies on a weighted score of two tests—the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test, or OLSAT, and the Bracken School Readiness Assessment—to determine eligibility. (Children who are already in the public schools are tested in school; others can make appointments to be tested by the Department of Education.) As initially presented last October, only those children scoring in the 95th percentile or above—the top 5 percent, in other words—against a national sample would gain admittance, with enough classes created in each district to enroll those who qualified. In one of the PowerPoint slideshows that have become a hallmark of the Bloomberg mayoralty, the Department of Education declared that this threshold was scientifically determined: "Research on G&T education shows [that] children in the top 5 percent need significant curricular modification and adaptation in order to succeed academically."
Yet Linda Silverman, director of the Colorado-based Gifted Development Center that the Department of Education cites as the source of this research, says there's no evidence the top 5 percent need special schooling. Rather, she argues, it's the top 2 to 3 percent—in stats lingo, two standard deviations beyond the norm, the same measure that is used for low-scoring students to be deemed in need of special ed. "The research is very solid at both ends of the spectrum," says Silverman, "that when you're two standard deviations beyond the norm, you need specially trained teachers."
In fact, the city did end up readjusting its standard—but down, not up. This April, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein announced that in order to "afford more students the opportunity to enroll in gifted programs," kids scoring in the 90th percentile or above would now be admitted to gifted programs. Jacob says the goal was to "give as many qualified students as possible" a shot at enriched classes. (More cynical observers noted that several school districts wouldn't have had enough 95th-percentile scorers to fill even a single class.) Silverman's organization, meanwhile, argues that children scoring in the top 10 percent "are not statistically or developmentally different" from those scoring between 85 and 90—from Luke Serrano, in other words—"and it is not justifiable to single them out for special treatment."
Jacob insists that regardless of where the bar was set, the important thing is that there's now a single standard. In prior years, he says, "you had some districts where they were letting kids into gifted programs who tested literally at the third percentile."
Many parents, though, are questioning whether standardized tests should be the sole admissions criterion, especially for four-year-olds who may never have seen a test before. Yvette Ortiz was hopeful that her youngest daughter could follow in the footsteps of her older sister, who qualified for the Lower East Side grade school NEST (New Explorations Into Science, Technology and Math) under the old system of one-on-one teacher evaluations. "She recognizes words that my gifted daughter did not at the same age," says Ortiz of her youngest. "And she is so much more advanced academically."
Instead, she scored a 40. Ortiz later found out that her daughter had been pulled out of snack time for her test, which was conducted by a staffer who had never administered it previously. She says she later told Department of Education gifted programs czar Anna Commitante, "They pulled her out of snack. Do you understand that for a four-year-old, that's a major part of her day?" Commitante's e-mailed response, according to Ortiz: "My daughter was 'immature and fatigued.' "
Ortiz's daughter, like Luke Serrano, scored well on the Bracken, but her OLSAT score, which counts for twice as much in the Department of Education's gifted calculus, pulled her down below the qualifying mark. In fact, visit any parent discussion board and you'll find parents with tales of otherwise academically savvy children who scored high-90s on the Bracken, which mostly measures such things as shape and color recognition, yet barely cracked double digits on the OLSAT, which specializes in "one of these things are not like the other" logic puzzles.
Harcourt Assessment, the Texas publishing giant that supplies both tests, insists they're proven to have sufficient validity (predicting future academic performance) and reliability (students' scores are consistent from test to test). An evaluation of the OLSAT by the University of Nebraska's Buros Institute, though, noted that its designers had provided no evidence that students who do well on the test go on to do well in gifted programs. Rather, they only showed a correlation between doing well on the OLSAT and on other tests—including previous versions of the OLSAT itself.
This is a recognized problem with standardized tests as a whole, says Robert Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which advocates against what it considers the misuse of standardized tests. "Indeed, test scores are good predictors of test scores," observes Schaeffer. "But how well it correlates with more significant outcomes like grades, graduation rates, going on to college, and longer-term adult performance is unknown, on almost all of them." The Buros study ultimately concluded that the OLSAT was appropriate for a "limited role" in screening students for special classes, as "one of a variety of instruments that could be used."
Adria Quinones, Manhattan mom of a G&T fourth-grader (and daughter of former schools chancellor Nathan Quinones), says her son's brightest classmate was admitted only by teacher recommendation, not test scores. "The kid's scary smart—you don't have to be around the child more than a few minutes before you say, 'This is a child who should be in a G&T program.' " Testing four-year-olds, to her mind, is ridiculous: "They poop at the wrong hour and boom, that's 20 points off their IQ."
The Department of Education says universal testing is fairer to poor and immigrant parents who may not have the savvy to sweet-talk human evaluators. But the numbers so far don't bear that out. Last month, the Times reported that the number of gifted seats going to students in the city's four wealthiest districts (the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side, Staten Island, and northeast Queens) had soared under the new system, from 24.9 percent to 39.2 percent.
Jacob counters that the number of kids scoring a 90 or better rose more in low-income districts (121 percent) than in other districts (60 percent). (Tests were given to entering students last year, but not used as an admission standard.) But the numbers show that's mostly because new outreach programs got more kids to test—as much as eight times as many in some districts that had few G&T programs in the past. A Voice analysis of Department of Education documents shows there are still dramatic disparities in results: In Manhattan's District 3, covering the Upper West Side, 35.8 percent of kids tested qualified for G&T programs. In District 9 in the South Bronx, meanwhile, the number of kids tested soared from 49 to 390, but only 2.8 percent—just 11 kids out of 390 applicants—made the cut.
It's figures like these that are only likely to harden the resolve of those who think that standardized tests are inherently biased against underprivileged kids. Children from more well-off families, testing critics note, are more likely to have had the kind of experiences—from enriched preschool classes to frequent library visits— that can help them at test time.
"It's a good thing that they're screening all kids for gifted and talented," says Schaeffer. "But the tool they're using is a skewed measure that only selects for a particular type of test-taking talent. And it ends up in the bleaching of gifted and talented classrooms."
The city currently says it will re- evaluate its standards for next year. The tests, though, are likely to remain, especially given that the Department of Education is in the midst of a five-year, $5 million contract with Harcourt to provide testing materials. (The department says it spent an additional $2.4 million this year on conducting and grading the tests.) Silverman suggests that at the very least, taking the top-scoring kids on either test, rather than using a weighted average, would help students who excel, say, in artistic areas without testing well on more left-brain skills.
To Barratt, meanwhile, the G&T wars are ultimately a distraction. "The real story is that there are not enough good schools for kids," she says. "So we have to lie, cheat, and steal spaces from each other to have any shot at a good education."